COLUMN: Tax season perfect time to consider data security

With all of the financial information that is shared by tax preparers during tax season, financial service companies must be proactive in identifying the ways they can ensure the security of their clients’ personal information.

Here are a few actionable steps tax preparers can take to protect their clients’ private information – as well as their own legal, financial and reputational standing – so that it doesn’t end up in the wrong hands:

The scope of protection needs to be broad

The information security net needs to be wide and all-encompassing, protecting personally identifiable information in electronic form, i.e. on desktops, laptops and mobile phones as well as on paper, both inside and outside of the office.

Keep confidential information under ‘lock’

Accountant desks are typically flooded with confidential paperwork, especially during tax season, so when it comes to securing sensitive client information (like w-2s, bank and insurance statements, student loan interest, etc.) physically locking devices and paper documents are critical. Seemingly obvious suggestions like keeping locked filing cabinets and other storage that houses sensitive information in secure areas is also an important step.

Dispose of confidential information securely

The insecure disposal of hardware and paperwork continues to be a significant cause of security incidents. One of the biggest mistakes tax preparers can make when handling the sensitive and personally identifiable information of their clients is tossing those paper documents into the trash without securely shredding, or destroying them.

Promote a clean desk policy

When confidential information is left unattended it has the potential to be accessed by other employees, which can be just as risky as if the information were to be visible to an external hacker. A clean desk policy will promote safe security practices that will ultimately become a habit amongst staffers. Equip computers with privacy screens and secure confidential information when leaving the workspace.

Implement a document management process

Each year, tax preparers are faced with the task of disposing of or storing another year’s worth of documents. Over-saving records or destroying them too soon can be problematic – a document management process will detail how to organize documents for storage, retrieval, and record-keeping. The policy will also flag expiry dates and identify how particular documents should be destroyed.

Invest in employee training

Security awareness must be company-wide. Protecting confidential information should be a priority at all levels of the company. Employees should have a comprehensive understanding of the security policies in place and companies should introduce a Shred-it All Policy so employees know how to securely destroy documents when no longer needed.